The Great Beauty

Maggie Cheung, NYC, 10/1/00

Maggie Cheung, NYC, 10/1/00

Glamorous, with physical grace and a hypnotic voice (in five languages), the iconic Chinese actress Maggie Cheung, fits seamlessly into both contemporary and period roles. Born in Hong Kong to parents from Shanghai, she began her career in beauty pageants and as a model. Her earliest films were fluffy romantic comedies, churned out by the Hong Kong studio system, but by 1987, she was working with action master Jackie Chan. And another artistic association, begun at the same time, with the great director Wong Kar-Wai, resulted in a profound body of work.

Beginning with Wong’s debut feature, “As Tears Go By” (1988), they made five emotionally resonant and visually glorious films together, four shot by the brilliant cinematographer Christopher Doyle, including “In the Mood for Love” (2000), an atmospheric study of longing, and a masterpiece.

“Maggie Cheung: Center Stage,” a 20-film retrospective at Metrograph, will open on Thursday, December 8 and run through Wednesday, December 21. The films, all 35mm prints, include her work with Wong, two Jackie Chan films, Olivier Assayas’s “Irma Vep” (1996) and “Clean” (2004). Another highlight (and the film that gives the series its title), is Stanley Kwan’s multi-layered doc/fiction hybrid, “Center Stage” (1991). Cheung, sublime, incarnates the pre-revolutionary Shanghainese silent screen goddess Ruan Ling-yu, who committed suicide at 25, in the wake of a devastating scandal.

Stanley Kwan, NYC, 6/17/02

Stanley Kwan, NYC, 6/17/02

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“Another Frontier Wit” & “Little Lady”

Robert Altman, NYC, 8/19/03

Robert Altman, NYC, 8/19/03

Director Robert Altman’s incomparable, (oft-labeled) revisionist western, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971), begins with a lone horseman arriving at a muddy  frontier town, Presbyterian Church, in a cold rain. A bearded (and very handsome) John McCabe (Warren Beatty), seemingly wrapped in a brown bear, and wearing a bowler, dismounts and enters Sheehan’s saloon, to meet and deal a few hands of poker for the locals. The action is accompanied by the legendary Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger Song” (“he wants to trade the game he knows for shelter”). The melancholy mood is set.

(Cohen’s songs on the soundtrack also include “Sisters of Mercy” and “Winter Lady,”  which, with their atmospheric music and lyrics, simultaneously cryptic/evocative and precisely attuned to Altman’s proceedings, seem as if they were commissioned for the film, but are from the great songwriter’s 1967 debut album. And I always feel a little stoned when I hear them.)

McCabe, maybe a crack gambler, feared gunfighter and once known by the nickname Pudgy (or maybe not), decides to put down roots, establishing his business, McCabe’s House of Fortune–gambling, saloon and whorehouse–as the town grows from a few rough buildings and the church. A zinc mining operation starts digging.

Constance Miller (Julie Christie) arrives from Bear Paw, with a shipment of McCabe’s female employees. Unamused by his banter (she sarcastically dubs him “another frontier wit”), and perceiving that he’s more swagger than smarts and strategy, convinces him to take her on as his partner, working as his madam (also available for the right price, $5–this is 1902). She’s ethereally beautiful, her face surrounded by angel curls, disguising her steeliness. A foot taller, and antique courtly, McCabe calls her “little lady.”

Business is good (happy hookers, happy drunks, and an undefined personal relationship develops between McCabe and Mrs. Miller), so good that the mining company sends representatives to buy McCabe out. His miscalculation of the worth of his business and of his corporate adversary, leads to a shoot-out in a near white-out, as the church burns, and Mrs. Miller drifts off into her opium dream.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller was shot in sequence, (and largely improvised), the sets/town built as the filming progressed. Despite the dreary winter landscape, the remote location near Vancouver, photographed (underexposed using the flashing technique) by the master cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, has a rough and mythic beauty. “The whole idea was to make some old faded pictures.”

“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” opens today in a new 4K restoration at Film Forum for a one-week run.

The 2017 Independent Spirit Awards will present its annual Robert Altman Award (given to one film’s director, casting director and ensemble cast) to Barry Jenkins’s sublime “Moonlight” (which on Monday night won four Gotham Awards) on February 25.

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April Showers Bring May Flowers. What Does Climate Change Bring? (Stillwater Diary)

Witch hazel, Stone Ridge, NY, 11/21/16

Witch hazel, Stone Ridge, NY, 11/21/16

Witch hazel blooms in the fall, spidery, creamy yellow flowers clinging to the branches even after the vibrant leaves have fallen. But deciduous azalea is not a fall bloomer. Its flowers are a harbinger of spring, particularly eagerly awaited each April at the National Arboretum, a glorious reward for having survived winter.

It’s been a warm fall and on John Street in Kingston, a small purple azalea misread the signals and offered its lovely flowers in November. While evergreen azaleas can bloom in both spring and fall, the deciduous varieties (like this one, with its leaves turning scarlet) don’t.

Maybe the bush will set new buds for 2017. I don’t know. But unseasonably warm temperatures last winter destroyed most of the peach crop in the Hudson Valley– buds that had been cued to begin opening, withered when they encountered winter’s return.

Azalea, Kingston, NY, 11/19/16

Azalea, Kingston, NY, 11/19/16

Today is Giving Tuesday–following Cyber Monday, Brunch Sunday, Black Friday on Saturday (I made the second one up)–which, unlike all the getting and spending, is important. To combat the ignorance and lies of the president-elect (who, last week at his it’s on/it’s off/it’s on meet and greet with the publisher, editors and reporters at The New York Times, took a baby step back from branding climate change a Chinese hoax), I’m donating to the Kingston YMCA Farm Project.

And I would be donating to this wonderful program in a perfect world. But in ours, Myron Ebell, a notorious climate change denier, friend of coal, would-be privatizer of our national forests and lobbyist, is heading up the Environmental Protection Agency transition. And our next United Nations Ambassador, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, buried a report on the devastation unchecked climate change will bring to her state in the next 70 years, and refused to acknowledge the role of climate change in the furious floods in 2015 that killed 16 SC residents and caused billions of dollars of damage.

In 2013, the Kingston YMCA Farm Project, using organic methods, began cultivating a parcel of land in midtown, behind the Y. Goals included “instilling a lifetime of awareness in children and youth” of where their food comes from, how to nourish themselves, their families and the earth, and providing “accessible, heathy local produce to the community through a weekly Y farm stand and bicycle-driven mobile farm market.”

In 2017, KayCee Wimbish, project director and farmer, and Susan Hereth, education director, will continue and expand the youth development program, with hands-on work: planting seeds, tending and harvesting crops, preparing recipes with the fresh ingredients and working at the farm stand.

Y Farm participants, who also learn about just food systems, come from all grade levels at Kingston’s George Washington Elementary School, the Y’s summer camp programs, Ulster County Healthy Families and collaborations with the Center for Creative Education.

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Escape Into the Dark Theater to (Briefly) Escape Our Country’s Darkness

Takeshi Kitano, NYC, 1/5/98

Takeshi Kitano, NYC, 1/5/98

Takeshi “Beat” Kitano is one of those (great) directors who divides your view of the world into two regions–before and after you’ve seen his films. The work encompasses ice cool, ultraviolent yakuza dramas (starring the filmmaker, wearing knife sharp Yoji Yamato suits), unexpectedly emotional character studies and wistful comedies.

Eleven of Kitano’s films will screen, all in 35mm, in a nine-day series at Metrograph beginning on Thursday, November 17. “Hana-bi” (1997), perhaps his best-loved film, seamlessly merges the “two sides of Kitano’s directorial personality: the warm, tender, observant dramatist and the master of controlled chaos.”

Kitano, impassive as always, is perfect as a retired detective, now the caregiver to his beloved dying wife and his wheelchair-bound ex-partner, but he also remembers how to take care of (yakuza) business. The title translates as “Fireworks.”

One of the most important films produced by Office Kitano, Jia Zhanke’s epic, “Platform,” will be shown in the director’s cut on Sunday, November 27 at 2:00 pm, as part of “Welcome to Metrograph: A-Z.” Following the members of a theater troupe over a decade, Jia parallels the personal with the monumental shifts that occurred in China as the Cultural Revolution segued into the beginning of market capitalism.

I photographed Takeshi “Beat” Kitano in midtown at the Kitano hotel. It was a coincidence, not a marketing opportunity, unlike what Ivaka Trump grabbed, awkwardly positioning her arm during the “60 Minutes” interview, displaying her gaudy/ugly, yet expensive (ah, typical Trump) bracelet. If this presidency is going to be one long horrific sales job (in so many ways), Ivanka will need to get lessons on how to be a better mannequin from her (second) step-mother.

The rest of us will need to be hypervigilant, resist, demonstrate, as for the second time in the 21st century, the winner of the popular vote, will not occupy the Oval Office. Hillary Clinton currently leads by more than one million votes, with the tally expected to double. Sign to support Barbara Boxer’s legislation to abolish the Electoral College.

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Happy 102nd Birthday, Norman Lloyd

Norman Lloyd, NYC, 11/27/07

Norman Lloyd, NYC, 11/27/07

This is a very different piece than what I had planned to post yesterday. I’ve trimmed my headline (gone: “And Congratulations, Madam President-Elect. OK Now to Exhale.”) I’ve deleted my excitement and that of two young women, 18 (a stranger at my polling place,  who looked like Jean Seberg with her “Breathless” haircut starting to grow out), and 22 (a dear friend’s smart, talented daughter, a friend as well), that 96 years after women’s suffrage and 144 years after the first woman, Ohioan Victoria Woodhull ran for president, a woman was about to smash the highest glass ceiling.

But what remains today is the joy of a wonderful man, Norman Lloyd, having a big birthday (they’re all big somewhere north of 90). And although the election of an profoundly unqualified, unprepared bigoted and misogynist buffoon seems more like fiction than the plots of Norman’s films, this is still a great country that inexplicably (and I believe temporarily) has taken a detour away from the future.

Written yesterday morning: 

Last week I phoned Norman, who has been an actor, director and producer (in theater, film and television) for more than eight decades, to ask him some questions about politics, and desperate for anything special to cut the stress of the endless campaign, to hear his beautiful voice and thrilling diction.

If you missed him in his screen debut in Hitchcock’s “Saboteur” (1942),–a small role, but the title character–perhaps you saw him in his most recent film, playing Amy Schumer’s grandfather, Norman, in “Trainwreck” (2015). Or as Dr. Daniel Auschlander on “St. Elsewhere” (1982-1988).

Born on November 8, 1914, Norman’s  first presidential election was on November 3, 1936. (The 26th amendment to the Constitution, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, wasn’t signed into law until 1971, by Richard Nixon, who, in a very different time, said, ““The reason I believe that your generation, the 11 million new voters, will do so much for America at home is that you will infuse into this nation some idealism, some courage, some stamina, some high moral purpose, that this country always needs.”)

“Of course I cast my first ballot for Roosevelt,” Norman said. I told him that FDR got 523 electoral votes, second only to Ronald Reagan’s 524 in 1984 (when there were seven more to contest). Norman made a disdainful (yet elegant) sound and added, “Reagan wasn’t even a good president of the Screen Actors Guild.”

Norman was six when women got the right to vote in 1920 but although he remembers wanting to be an actor as a very young child, he doesn’t recall his family’s reaction to women’s suffrage. “We weren’t a political family. But I’m sure my mother voted.”

He continued, “Obama has been an extraordinary president. I voted for him twice.” Had he expected to see a woman elected president in his lifetime? Norman paused and then answered, “I guess I never thought about it. But I’m enthusiastic to vote for Hillary Clinton.”

As Norman and I were finishing our conversation, I asked what his plans were for celebrating turning 102. “Four days after my birthday, a bunch of friends–which he said in Brooklynese, the accent he’d shed before he first “tread the boards” in the 30s–are giving me a party on my road. I’m really looking forward to it. I haven’t had an audience in a while.”

I contradicted him. “Oh, but that’s not true. Of course you’ve had an audience. We  can see you–repertory cinema, TV reruns–you just can’t see us.” He laughed.

Before voting yesterday morning, I drank coffee from my favorite mug (bought at the Susan B. Anthony House Museum and House in Rochester), white with a quick reddish line drawing of the great feminist and her famous quote, “failure is impossible.” I still believe that. Susan B. Anthony had been dead for 14 years before women won the right to vote. We will elect a woman president (Elizabeth Warren? Tulsi Gabbard? Kamala Harris?). And somehow, through resistance, we will survive our 45th president.

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“After That”

Untitled #4 (Stone Ridge, NY, 2/16)

Untitled #4 (Stone Ridge, NY, 2/16)

I’m really pleased that several prints from my new series, “After That,” will be exhibited at Joshua Vogel and Kelly Zaneto’s Blackcreek Mercantile & Trading showroom in midtown Kingston. I’m in great company, with beautiful work from BCMTJoshua Vogel, Kathy Erteman, Christopher Kurtz and Alasdair.

Shot in 2015-2016, these images are a continuation of the work I started in an earlier series, “The Way That Light Attaches,” and are concerned with light, color, depth/focus, scale, motion, perception–and a small part of the natural world. The seven 24″x36″ color photographs, each an edition of 10, are archival inkjet prints made on my Epson 7900.

The showroom’s grand opening will be on Saturday, November 5 from 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm, at 628 Broadway, Kingston. Regular hours are Friday-Sunday, 11:00 am to 5:00 pm and Monday through Thursday by appointment: bcmt.co@gmail.com

Blackcreek Mercantile & Trading showroom, Kingston, NY, 10/16

Blackcreek Mercantile & Trading showroom, Kingston, NY, 10/16

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Reading and Riding

1 train, between 42nd and 50th Streets, NYC, 10/25/16

1 train, between 42nd and 50th Streets, NYC, 10/25/16

We all feel happy. There are two dogs on the 1, a Yorkie squirming out of her stylish carrying bag, and the other, small and soft with a sweet face, sitting on the floor, semi-hidden between her mom’s knees.

To my right, a woman (lovely, with Liz Taylor/ Cleopatra eyeliner) volunteers that she weighs 95 pounds and that her husky (Turkish, not Siberian) weighs 102. Of course we lift up our phones, offering pictures of our dogs. She laughs at Ryder on the ex-sofa.

From the opposite end of the car,  a skinny guy with a container of candy, stands and asks for money. Entertaining his audience, he laughs, “Don’t worry, I like white people.” As he makes his way toward us, he says, “I’ve seen a lot of crazy stuff. Maybe Trump will win.” I give him a dollar and think about what he said. A few stops later, I approach him where he’s leaning on a pole. “I’ve never seen anything as full of sustained craziness as the Trump campaign.” He agrees. “But,” I add, “he won’t win.” He nods, offers me a piece of candy.

1 train, between 50th and 59th Streets, NYC, 10/25/16

1 train, between 50th and 59th Streets, NYC, 10/25/16

 

Mark and I exited the train at 79th Street and headed to Book Culture, a few blocks north on Columbus, to hear Sonya Chung read from and talk about her new (and second) novel, “The Loved Ones,” a story of two families, African-American and Korean, in D.C. in the 80s. Like in her wonderful debut, “Long for This World,” the language is precise and beautiful and her characters so real that it was hard to return to the room when Sonya was done reading.

I’ve not yet finished Book One in “The Loved Ones.” I intend to make real progress this weekend as well as read a new interview with Sonya.

Sonya Chung, NYC, 1/21/16

Sonya Chung, NYC, 1/21/16

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